KCRW DJ Eric J. Lawrence is also our music librarian. And, as you would expect from someone who sits in an “office” surrounding by over 60,000 recordings for 8 hours every day, he knows a LOT about music. I mean a lot. He’s our human fact checking machine on music minutia. His latest post for KCRW’s 5Things blog – on 5 Cover Songs You Might Not Have Known Were Cover Songs – is a perfect representation of his deep knowledge. Spoon’s “Don’t You Evah” was a cover?? What???
One of the great pleasures of pop music is hearing artists performing songs originally performed by other artists – the so-called “cover song.” The best ones are like getting a two-for-one: the genius of the original songwriters combined with the talents of the performing band. Ever since it became de rigueur for artists to write their own songs, choosing to perform cover songs has been a way for artists to learn their craft (Bob Dylan’s first album is mostly covers), as well as a means to pay tribute to their predecessors (e.g. the innumerable cover versions of Beatles songs). We’re living in a golden age of covers, where the internet and other technologies make it easy to record and share these curiosities, whether in the form of free downloadable MP3s, artist tribute albums or even with the more modern variations of the cover song, like remixes and mash-ups. Sometimes the cover version even eclipses the original, in terms of popularity if not artistic merit (Dylan has been quoted as saying that when performing “All Along the Watchtower” he feels like he is paying tribute to Jimi Hendrix, despite the fact that he wrote it!) Here are some cover songs that you might not have realized were cover songs to begin with:
1. Fats Domino – “Blueberry Hill”
“Blueberry Hill” is a stone-cold, rock & roll standard, having been performed by such legends as Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beach Boys and Elton John. It is also the signature song for Fats Domino, the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, who had his biggest single with it in 1956. But the song was first introduced as a big band number in 1940, with Glenn Miller popularizing it that year. Even Gene Autry and Louis Armstrong hit the charts with their versions before Domino brought it to the rock and roll crowd.
2. Laura Branigan – “Gloria”
The late Laura Branigan helped introduce the Euro-disco sound to the US in 1982 with her smash hit single, “Gloria,” which had a record-breaking 36-week run on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Its influence was immediate – the whole soundtrack to the 1983 film Flashdance feels like variations of the song (while “Gloria” appears prominently in the film, it doesn’t appear on the soundtrack, although a different Branigan song does). But the song began life as an Italian pop song, originally performed by its composer, Umberto Tozzi, whose version topped charts throughout Europe in 1979.
3. David Bowie – “It Ain’t Easy”
David Bowie’s glam-rock alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust, seemed so fully formed on the classic 1972 album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (to give the full title), that it came as a surprise to me that one of the tracks from the album was originally by an obscure singer/songwriter. “It Ain’t Easy” was written and performed by Ron Davies (not to be confused with Ray Davies of the Kinks) on his 1970 album, Silent Song through the Land. Three Dog Night, Long John Baldry and Mitch Ryder all released their versions before the space-faring Ziggy immortalized the song just before committing rock and roll suicide. Ten years later, goth rockers Bauhaus had a major hit with their version of “Ziggy Stardust,” helping to reintroduce Bowie’s classic album to the New Wave crowd.
4. After the Fire – “Der Kommisar”
In one of the more complicated stories of a cover song, “Der Kommissar” was originally co-written and performed by Austrian pop star Falco in a German-language version that was a number-one hit throughout Europe in 1982, but failed to make an impact in the US and UK markets. Later that year, British rockers After the Fire recorded an English-language version, but that too initially failed to draw much attention, and the band announced they were breaking up. Even Laura Branigan gave it a shot that year, with a retitled version called “Deep in the Dark.” Finally, led in part by belated chart success in Canada, After the Fire’s version began to gain traction in the US, eventually reaching #5 in early 1983, but the band couldn’t be convinced to reunite. In its wake, Falco re-released his original version, which did a little better than before, but ultimately stalled out. However, he did hit big domestically with “Rock Me Amadeus” three years later. Tragically Falco died from injuries received in a car accident in 1998.
5. Spoon – “Don’t You Evah”
Portland-based, Austin-born indie-rock heavyweights Spoon have been slowly but surely establishing themselves as one of America’s premiere bands. But they almost called it quits after a disastrous major-label experience in the late 90s. They persevered however, much to our happiness, with a string of killer albums on the Merge label. On their 2007 album, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Spoon paid tribute to the short-lived NYC-based band The Natural History with their cover of “Don’t You Evah.” Originally titled “Don’t You Ever,” the song was written by siblings Max and Julian Tepper, along with drummer Derek Vockins, and although the band broke up in 2005, Spoon liked them so much they included The Natural History’s original on their “Don’t You Evah” remix EP, giving the late band and their song a little posthumous love.